The Great Untranslated: To Mythistorima tis Kyrias Ersis (The Novel of Mrs Ersi) by Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis

When asked about the great literary events that happened in 1922, you will immediately come up with the most renowned products of the annus mirabilis: T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland , Virgina Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Most likely, you ignore that the same year in Greece there was published Georgios Drossinis’ novel Ersi, whose principal value now lies in the fact that it served as the model for the writing of the Greek Ulysses: Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis’ The Novel of Mrs Ersi. 

Drossinis’ book is fitting material for a late-modernist parody: it tells the story of an idealised romantic and intellectual relationship of the archeologist Pavlos Rodanos and his beautiful wife Ersi. The main setting of the novel is a small Greek island on which the couple spend six months, from April until October. The main purpose for the sojourn is Rodanos’ archeological research in pursuit of his study of the female leg and hand as represented in ancient Greek sculpture. In the course of the narrative, Drossinis ostentatiously draws parallels between the perfect beauty teased out of the marble by anonymous artists of yore and the flesh-and-blood perfection of Rodanos’ wife. This Parnassian picture-perfect story of a conjugal idyll becomes the framework of the imperfect and more than bewildering modernist edifice completed by Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis in 1966. It’s been long since Drossinis’ starry-eyed opuscule sunk into oblivion. If somebody mentions it nowadays at all, they do it almost always exclusively when discussing Pentzikis’ strange novel, the Greek response to an Irishman’s response to the immortal Greek epic.

In Pentzikis’ avant-garde reworking of Drossinis’ novel,  Ersi‘s protagonists have to deal with the overwhelming presence of a third party: the narrator recounting his mission of an avant-garde reworking of Drossinis’ novel and inducting its characters into the space of literary modernism. This creative quest is narrated through  a series of dreams and hallucinations involving grotesque transformations of some of the participants of this bizarre theatre of the mind as well as varied and numerous allusions to literature, history and myth. The culmination of the said quest is the encounter of the narrator with Ersi and their highly symbolic union that is meant to represent the act of writing itself. Just like Ulysses, the novel ends with a long interior monologue – that of the male narrator lying in bed next to his wife and recapping the main events of the book we are about to finish reading.

Karagiozis, a character of Greek shadow-puppet theatre. Image Source

What is common between the Greek folklore hero Sakorafos, the humpbacked character of shadow-puppet theatre Karagiozis, and Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos’s court jester Voilas? What is the significance of all the metamorphoses undergone by the protean Ruit Horas, the embodiment of the passage of time, who accompanies Ersi on her bus trips in Chalcidice? How come that one of the narrator’s children, begotten with his wife, is literally a needle and thread? I’m afraid we might have a chance of seeking out answers to these questions only when this novel gets translated. At the end of this short article about Pentzikis we come across the following striking statement:  “If the protagonists of the OuLiPo were able to read his works they would surely have made him a leading member of their movement.” If that is not an invitation to make Pentzikis’ literary legacy available to a broader international audience, I don’t know what is.

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